My 1979 Chevy pickup has me driving into Bozeman with its downtown spruced up all bright and cheerful for the holidays. It’s cold outside. To make matters worse, I’ve been battling a cold inside my head for three days. Savor this time of the year, people say. They’re convinced there’s something special about it.
Now is not the time for a cold. Not sure there's ever a good time, but being in the thick of one on a day like today isn’t sitting right. This is my first visit to this town. Winter in Montana is as cold as advertised, but the deep chill isn’t affecting Bozeman’s charm. I can see why Danny moved here a few years back.
“You gotta come out in the summer,” Danny texted me last October. “We’ll take a raft down Gallatin one day and hike up Bridger the next.”
Sounded like a good idea. Then again, his ideas always did. He had a knack for that sort of thing. Ever since grade school, Danny’s schemes had a way of putting us in the mix. I’m sure I had a fine enough reason for declining his offer, but I couldn’t rise to my own defense if asked.
Not on a day like today.
Pulling into Danny’s driveway, I button the top of my white shirt and make sure my tie is snug. I haven’t worn a suit in years; can’t stand the way it feels. Why do people dress like this? I kill the ignition, close my eyes, and sit in silence. My head’s doing everything in its power to avoid my heart.
The front door opens and out comes Mandy. Danny met her after his first tour in Iraq—they married right away. She gave birth to Hugh while Danny was out on his second tour. I remember how odd it was to hold him before his father. Same thing happened with Eleanor, who was born while Danny was on his third and final tour. The tour that hurt his back and changed things.
Mandy’s wearing all black. Trying to be tough, Hugh follows right behind her holding Eleanor’s hand. They’re not even teenagers yet. I give Mandy a hug and load the kids in the truck. The church is a couple of blocks away, but it’s too damn cold to walk.
“Are we going to see Daddy?” Eleanor asks once we’re all buckled in.
Danny never talked about how he hurt his back, but then again he didn’t want to talk about much of anything after that last tour. The doctor prescribed Percocet to help with the pain and that seemed to help for a spell.
We meet everyone at the church. Danny’s parents, siblings, and close friends have all found their way inside. I escort Mandy and the kids to the front pew as a middle-aged woman softly plays the piano. With them situated, I make my way up to a seat behind the pulpit.
Based on the last text message he sent my way, Danny knew you’re not supposed to mix that much whiskey with that much Percocet. Maybe he thought he’d run out of options. I don’t know but, man, I wish he could’ve seen there were other options.
A hymn is sung, followed by a prayer, and then an old man in a suit tells us the order of things. First up is a kid in uniform who served with Danny. To hear him tell it, Danny’s a hero to those boys. An aunt speaks next, and then Danny’s sister sings a song. I can’t look at Mandy while his sister sings. I already know.
I’ve never delivered a eulogy. I get up to speak and pull a piece of paper from my jacket with only two sentences on it, written in pencil. I pull the microphone close, clear my throat, and look down at the paper. It’s Danny’s final text message from a few days ago.
Tell everyone I’m sorry. I don’t want to be dead.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)